Switzerland was one of 138 countries that agreed to grant Palestine non-member observer status at the United Nations on Thursday. Swiss Ambassador to the UN Paul Seger told the General Assembly it was a move to invigorate the peace process.
“We believe that granting Palestine [non-member] observer status at the United Nations will revive the concept of a two-state solution,” Seger noted after the vote.
He added however that the Swiss backing did not mean Bern was now ready to recognise Palestine as a state on a bilateral level. That would depend on the outcome of future peace talks, he said.
The resolution upgrading the Palestinians' status passed 138-9, with 41 abstentions.
With its newly enhanced status, the Palestinians can now gain access to UN agencies and international bodies, most significantly the International Criminal Court, which could become a springboard for going after Israel for alleged war crimes or its ongoing settlement building on war-won land.
The vote grants Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas an overwhelming international endorsement for his key position: establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.
A Palestinian flag was quickly unfurled on the floor of the General Assembly, behind the Palestinian delegation, after an electronic screen lit up with the final vote.
The tally came after a speech by Abbas in which he called the moment a “last chance” to save the two-state solution.
“The General Assembly is being asked today to issue the birth certificate of Palestine,” the Palestinian leader declared.
The United States and Israel immediately criticised the vote.
“Today's unfortunate and counterproductive resolution places further obstacles in the path of peace,” UN Ambassador Susan Rice said.
Calling the vote “meaningless”, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Abbas of spreading “mendacious propaganda” against Israel in a speech he rejected as “defamatory and venomous”.
“The resolution in the UN today won't change anything on the ground,” Netanyahu said. “It won't advance the establishment of a Palestinian state, but rather, put it further off.”
The US Ambassador to Bern, Donald Beyer, told Swiss public radio: “We have tried our best to convince Switzerland to vote ‘no’ or to abstain. And we understand that the cabinet took the decision to support the resolution. We do not agree, but we respect their position.”
“I had a long conversation with the foreign minister, Didier Burkhalter, the other day. He gave me some solid arguments. But President Obama strongly believes that this will make peace in Israel and Palestine more difficult.”
Break the stalemate
With most UN members sympathetic to the Palestinians, there had been no doubt the resolution would be approved. A state of Palestine has already been recognised by 132 countries, and the Palestinians have 80 embassies and 40 representative offices around the world, according to the Palestinian foreign ministry.
Real independence remains an elusive dream until the Palestinians negotiate a peace deal with the Israelis, who warned that the General Assembly action will only delay a lasting solution.
Israel still controls the West Bank, east Jerusalem and access to Gaza, and it accused the Palestinians of bypassing negotiations with the campaign to upgrade their UN status.
The UN action also could help Abbas restore some of his standing, which has been eroded by years of stalemate in peace efforts. His rival, the Hamas militant group, deeply entrenched in Gaza, has seen its popularity rise after it responded with a barrage of rocket fire to an Israeli offensive earlier this month on targets linked to the militants.
After the vote, jubilant Palestinians crowded into the main square in the West Bank city of Ramallah, waving Palestinian flags and chanting "God is great!" Hundreds had watched the vote on outdoor screens and televisions, and they hugged, honked their horns and set off fireworks as the final vote was cast.
Palestinians had lobbied hard for Western support, winning over key European countries including France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden and Ireland, as well as Japan and New Zealand.
Ahead of the vote the Swiss foreign minister had explained that Switzerland’s backing did not mean that it was taking sides in the Middle East conflict.
The Switzerland-Israel Association had described Switzerland’s decision as "an inappropriate position for a neutral country" while the Switzerland-Palestine Association told swissinfo.ch that the Swiss vote in favour was a logical continuation of its policy so far.
Political scientist Laurent Goetschel of Basel University told swissinfo.ch that abstaining in the General Assembly would have amounted to taking "a clear position" in favour of Israel.
Germany and Britain were among the many Western nations that abstained.
Joining the United States and Israel in voting 'no' were Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Panama.
The Palestinians turned to the General Assembly after being stymied for full membership last year, when the US announced it would veto their bid for full UN membership until there is a peace deal with Israel.
Full membership requires Security Council approval, with no vetoes. The non-member observer state status only required a majority vote of the General Assembly.
The vote granted the Palestinians the same status at the UN as the Vatican, and they will keep their seat next to the Holy See in the General Assembly chamber.
Status of Palestine in the UN
The UN General Assembly recognised the Palestine Liberation Organisation as the representative of the Palestinian people in 1974 and granted it observer status.
In 1988 the General Assembly acknowledged the proclamation of the State of Palestine by the Palestine National Council, and decided to use the name Palestine instead of PLO in the UN system.
In 1998 the Palestinians were given further rights, including the right to participate in the debate that opens the General Assembly session, and to co-sponsor resolutions on Middle East issues.
In 2011 Palestine was admitted to Unesco, but its application for full membership of the UN was turned down by the Security Council.
On Thursday, the UN General Assembly voted to raise the Palestinians’ status at the United Nations from an observer to a non-member observer state.
The new status brings concrete benefits to the Palestinians, including access to UN institutions.
The date is the anniversary of the partition of Palestine in 1947 in the run-up to the establishment of Israel.